“You need to be prepared to operate in an environment where your radio communications will be denied, where using your cell phone will get you killed, and where your GPS, if it is working at all, may be providing inaccurate information.” I’ve heard this kind of guidance for training since my first field exercises, through ROTC, in 2014. At that point, it seemed to me to be largely a justification for the frequent map-and-compass-based land navigation and drilling on encrypted radio operations. More recently, I have seen people use it to describe multidomain operations (MDO), the Army’s new operating concept. It’s significant that this set of environmental characteristics both represents a fundamental basis of the Army’s overall operating concept and describes the challenges faced by units at the lowest levels—providing a connective tissue, in a sense, between the big picture and small-unit activities. But that translation of operating concept to tactics remains underexplored. How do multidomain operations translate to the brigade combat team level and below, where the focus is entirely on the tactical fight?
The Army’s recently released Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations describes an operating environment in which we are under constant contact in all domains, the adversary is collecting data to use as ammunition, and there is no sanctuary. Even being out of a direct- or indirect-fire weapons range does not mean safety from space and cyber threats. We can no longer return to a forward operating base and reasonably assume we will not be in contact: there is no fully secured area anymore. Furthermore, with the adversary’s investment in their capabilities, we can no longer assume we have domain superiority when we are in contact.
Adversaries have built offensive and defensive networks so that we are at risk of surveillance and potentially in contact, anytime and anywhere. The networks are integrated across all domains to make them more resilient against our targeting and more lethal in targeting us. The Army’s recognition of the urgent needs to address these realities have driven a transformational change to how we fight, culminating in FM 3-0. In the manual’s foreword, Chief of Staff of the Army General James McConville urges leaders at all echelons to understand and apply the multidomain principles to their formations. While MDO is partly an evolution of previous concepts like AirLand Battle, Full Spectrum Operations, and Unified Land Operations, it also requires a radically different mindset, including at the tactical level. An example is what is now required to mask your position. Simply camouflaging yourself with some face paint and well-placed sticks is entirely insufficient when there are capabilities that can pick up what is being said in a room through high-speed video footage of the vibrations of a potato chip bag lying around the speaker.
One of the key aspects of the new concept is “convergence,” which is the Army’s solution to attacking the adversary’s integrated defensive and offensive capabilities. “Convergence,” according to FM 3-0, “is an outcome created by the concerted employment of capabilities from multiple domains and echelons against combinations of decisive points in any domain to create effects against a system, formation, decision maker, or in a specific geographic area.” Key to the convergence concept are the integration of offensive capabilities from multiple domains and the employment of that integrated set of effects against a target or system. Integrating the tenet of convergence will be critical to successful attacks in the multidomain operating environment.
Returning to the issue of what MDO looks like when applied at the tactical level, there is an even more fundamental question that must first be addressed: Who does MDO? This question can be broken down into the two key constituent elements of convergence: integration and employment. For the first part, at what echelons does MDO integration occur? Given the significant staff undertaking required to integrate, synchronize, and converge capabilities across the space, cyber, air, land, and sea domains, a staff that can handle complex planning operations is necessary. The Army assesses a corps to be the optimal echelon for this. Below these echelons, then, are the units employing capabilities across multiple domains in support of multidomain operations.
While FM 3-0 states that “all operations are multidomain operations,” there is a difference between multidomain operations and operating in multiple domains, and understanding that difference is important for each echelon to clearly define, and prepare for, its role. Again, MDO requires convergence. Therefore, simply jamming a radio, hacking into a computer, or shooting artillery at a target, even if occurring simultaneously, would be operating in multiple domains but not necessarily conducting multidomain operations. To make those effects multidomain operations, they must be integrated together to “create effects against a system”; it would need to be setting conditions by jamming the radio of an adversary system, while also hacking its defensive radar, and then shooting artillery at the system. Furthermore, simply relying on intelligence capabilities that pull from different domains—like a GPS device or a computer—doesn’t make an operation suddenly count as MDO.
However, just because there’s a difference between multidomain operations and operating in multiple domains doesn’t mean that with adoption of the new FM 3-0 that there isn’t also an increased emphasis on echelons below divisions being able to both operate successfully in the new environment and employ capabilities across multiple domains. Units must recognize that they will be operating in environments where capabilities across all domains are degraded. Beyond that, tactical-level units are going to be in constant contact, across all domains, not only affecting their command-and-control capabilities, but, more urgently, posing a massive threat to their survivability. Masking positions with terrain, operating in dispersed formations that displace frequently, being aware of what satellites are overhead and able to observe friendly formations, communicating at the minimum radio power, and preventing phones in the field are only the beginning of understanding how to survive in such an environment. Units may, technically, have been operating in multiple domains previously, whether through using their communications systems that rely on space assets, leveraging a joint cyber asset, or even conducting some localized electronic warfare jamming, but besides not necessarily amounting to doing MDO, these practices also don’t accurately reflect the sheer volume of contact that will occur across all domains. In the future, our new operating concept may also mean that units get tactical-level offensive capabilities in nonkinetic domains to increase their chances of not only surviving, but also being able to conduct their missions.
To give an example, it’s possible that a corps staff will be using the tenets of MDO to set conditions for an airborne operation, specifically focusing on getting planes through contested airspace by using all available assets to neutralize the adversary’s protection and antiaircraft capabilities. To do this successfully, the corps must integrate multiple assets onto single target sets, which could be a combination of using electronic warfare to take out communications capabilities, space effects to prevent adversarial satellite navigation systems from working, a cyberattack on a radar system’s computer, or preparatory fires on the antiaircraft system itself. Due to the extensive planning, target system analysis, and layering of multiple domains, the aircraft is then able to come in and drop paratroopers.
Once on the ground, the divisions, brigades, and battalions are going to experience contact in all domains—their radios will be jammed, they’ll be shot at, their GPS will be unreliable, and they’ll be under constant observation in every domain every time they present a signature. They’ll simply be fighting to survive by masking, dispersing, and displacing. But it will require even more than that for the tactical levels to be able to not just survive, but fight back, in each domain. In this instance, the corps is conducting multidomain operations by integrating capabilities and the divisions and below are participating in MDO by integrating and employing capabilities across multiple domains.
To prepare for the new operating environment depicted by FM 3-0, at the division and above levels this will require fully integrating MDO into division and corps warfighters. Below that level, it will require both giving soldiers the understanding of the part they’re playing in MDO and, crucially, also giving them realistic training for what the battlefield will look like in modern environments characterized by large-scale combat operations. Units need the ability to see themselves in all domains on the battlefield to understand how to operate both offensively and defensively across all domains. Further, leaders need access to the capabilities that FM 3-0 highlights like electromagnetic emission masking, tools to counter unmanned systems, and deceptive emitters so they have the ability to do something about what the enemy is doing to them. We wouldn’t go to combat having only trained on a rifle in a classroom and we can’t go to combat having only trained on nonkinetic integration in that way either. It’ll take time to figure out exactly what echelon needs which capabilities—what the breakdown of tactical space and cyber capabilities looks like, for example—and then to get those capabilities in the hands of the right people. But until we start experimenting in the right controlled environments and training events, we will not get the essential buy-in from the force to be successful in multidomain operations. There are initial signs that this integration and experimentation are beginning to happen, and now is the time to double down on these efforts and ensure they extend across the entire Army.
That denied environment that I was told to expect during ROTC field training isn’t necessarily wrong. It certainly depicts part of what we may experience in the next fight. But it fails to reflect both the breadth and the volume of contact that we will experience, and it certainly does not capture all that MDO is. Clarifying the concepts of the new FM 3-0 and defining roles allows us to better prepare for our operating environment. Whether your role is to integrate MDO, to employ capabilities as part of a multidomain operation, or simply to work to survive and operate in the environment, we all have a part to play in the Army’s new operating concept. It’s not a concept of the future—it’s occurring now, it’s radically different, and we must prepare.
Captain Rebecca Segal is a field artillery officer, a graduate of Amherst College, and a Massachusetts native.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Julian Padua, US Army